Boxing Day 2008: The day Phil Brown gave a team talk on the pitch
Football’s Christmas period is, like the World Cup and European Championship, a law unto itself.
The concentration of a huge number of games into a short space of time means bizarre things will happen on the pitch, like Cuco Martina scoring one of the goals of the season or Stoke – Stoke! – being involved in a seven-goal thriller.
Essentially, the base level for ‘weird’ goes up tenfold between December 21 and January 5, as the lawless wasteland of Christmas party season imposes itself on the Premier League for a couple of weeks. And yet, even with all this at play, Hull City found a way to make things ‘too weird’ 10 years ago.
We’ve seen plenty of managers present themselves as characters in recent years, from Jürgen Klopp’s ‘Heavy Metal Football’ to Carlos Carvalhal’s lines about lobster and sardines, but Phil Brown was arguably the first to fully lean on his reputation as a friend first, boss second, probably an entertainer third.
This is a man who peddled a to-this-day unverified story about saving the life of a suicidal woman – unverified despite his version containing a whole host of theoretical witnesses. But it was a few months before that moment – on Boxing Day 2008 – that Brown achieved footballing immortality.
Brown’s Hull side had started like a train in their maiden Premier League season, winning six of their first nine games and going into their Boxing Day trip to Manchester City sitting pretty in the top six.
Their squad was of the variety we would later come to know as ‘too weird to stay up’ – Geovanni in the same midfield as Ian Ashbee, Daniel Cousin sharing a pitch with Caleb Folan, you know the sort of thing – but without the self-awareness to collapse under the weight of their own absurdity in the season’s opening months.
The cracks were beginning to show in December, though. After shipping four at home to a Sunderland side which began the day in the bottom three, they did the same in just 45 minutes at the Etihad.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and stupid babies need the most attention. These idioms both ring true in isolation, but Brown spun the wheel and it landed on ‘try both at once for some reason’. And so was born the on-pitch team talk.
It's the sort of thing you’ll never forget. Brown sitting his players down in the centre-circle when they’d normally be in the changing room receiving a dressing-down. Paul McShane looking close to tears. George Boateng swallowing hard like a kid who’s just been caught cheating on his homework. Geovanni staring off into the middle distance, mentally calculating which European clubs might be interested in bidding for him in January.
All the while the manager was engulfed in a weirdly controlled rage, pointing angrily but carefully at each one of his charges. Not only was he intent on showing them how angry he was, but he needed everyone else to know too.
Did it work? A resounding ‘maybe’. Hull were 4-0 down when Brown achieved immortality and ended up keeping the margin of defeat the same thanks to Craig Fagan’s 80th-minute goal. However, it may well have been the case that Manchester City took their foot off the gas in the second period, knowing they had another game to play just two days later.
It certainly didn’t help stop the rot, with Hull losing their next four games and waiting until March for their next win. That would ultimately be enough to keep them up, though: despite winning just once after December 6, they picked up enough points to stay up on the final day after Newcastle and Middlesbrough failed to get the results they needed to leapfrog them at the last.
Things went much better for Hull in the corresponding fixture 11 months later, with Jimmy Bullard cancelling out a Shaun Wright-Phillips opener when he scored from the penalty spot. The midfielder almost had his effort saved by Shay Given, though, perhaps because he already had one eye on his celebration.
What was that celebration, you ask… Well, it could only ever be a homage to their manager and his most famous on-pitch moment.
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